and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
There was no wall nor bannister at Lan Wangji’s back to prevent his fall, should his feet come close to the edge of the white stairs. Through his stupor, Wei Wuxian thought of shouting for Lan Wangji to be careful, as a fall of this height would no doubt kill him.
Jiang Cheng’s sword Sandu rested a dozen steps below, glinting in the sunlight. Bichen could have defended its master in the face of a disarmed opponent, but Lan Wangji did not grasp it. He did not seem to remember he had a sword at all.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian wanted to call.
But the scent of upturned earth was cloying up his throat.
It did not matter: Jiang Cheng gave not a single glance his way. “Hanguang-Jun,” he was spitting in Lan Wangji’s face, his hands clutched so tightly around Lan Wangji’s collar that the skin there turned bloodless. “We walk a narrow road, you and I, don’t we ?”
“Unhand me,” Lan Wangji replied icily.
“Oh, I won’t,” said Jiang Cheng in answer. His voice elevated as he spoke; his fingers tightened at Lan Wangji’s throat, dreaming of grabbing his neck instead. “I have some things to say to you, some things I should have said long ago, you pathetic excuse for a man.”
Wei Wuxian found his voice at last. “Jiang Cheng,” he called, “what are you—”
“Be quiet!” Jiang Cheng shouted without even looking his way.
It had been a long time since Jiang Cheng had used this voice on him. Wei Wuxian stilled for a moment in the face of forlorn memories—of a man consumed with rage slashing at the barriers of the village he had built, of a boy crying on top of him under the black sky, the shaking of his body akin to an earthquake.
His heart fluttered at his bare throat. He felt now that the veil over his nose and lips was a rope.
It did not matter. The light around him dimmed as if sunset had arrived early, until nothing shone but the faces of the two men before him caught in parody of an embrace.
“How dare you show yourself to me,” Jiang Cheng was saying now, his jaw as clear-cut as a knife’s edge, his open mouth showing his teeth, “did you think I would spare you ? I’ve let you live for this long, for my clan’s honor and for your brother’s, when I should have cut open your middle, made you experience a sliver of the pain he did…”
Lan Wangji moved then: his hands released Jiang Cheng’s wrists and came to claw at his shoulders instead, trying to push him away.
Jiang Cheng did not step back.
“It wasn’t enough that you killed him!” he said; his voice was near a scream and his grasp murderous. “It wasn’t enough for you to eviscerate a dying man, I should’ve known, I should’ve…”
His voice broke, and he roared then like a wounded beast. The sparse birds of prey clinging to the mountain’s flank flew off in a cacophony of cries and of fluttering wings.
“My father was always too trusting,” Jiang Cheng said. “He believed you like the fool he was when you told him you had been honorable at the time, but I always knew!”
He stumbled back, for Lan Wangji had managed to unlock his hold on him. Spots of blood darkened the purple robes he wore in the spots Lan Wangji’s nail had dug through cloth and skin.
Bichen flew out of its scabbard with only a brush of Lan Wangji’s palm. Jiang Cheng before him extended his hand as well, and Sandu flew to him, nearly cutting into Wei Wuxian’s side as it came.
“Stop!” Wei Wuxian cried.
“Stay away!” Jiang Cheng yelled in answer.
He pushed away Wei Wuxian’s hand which had taken hold of his sword arm. He flew forward then with the stances and skills they had both learned as children; Sandu stroked along Bichen’s blade in fluid offense, blocked only a breath away of Lan Wangji’s open neck.
Wei Wuxian could only look haggardly, his body out of reach of his will, as both of the people he cared the most about cut open each other’s limbs in thin little lines of blood and bruised each other’s skin with elbows and shoulders.
What is going on? he wondered over and over again. What should I do?
There was no step and no barrier to prevent the deathly fall at the stone bluff’s edge. And Lan Wangji looked weakened, as if knocked all out of strength; he found himself there again at heel’s touch, with Sandu forcing Bichen’s sharpness near Lan Wangji’s own neck.
Wei Wuxian once more grasped Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and clothes, but no amount of strength could move the stone-like shape of this man, of this stranger. “Did you think I wouldn’t know,” Jiang Cheng was spitting in fury—droplets flying out of his mouth, past gritted teeth— “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
Lan Wangji’s arm faltered. Bichen cut at the juncture of shoulder and neck in a thin, precise line.
Wei Wuxian tried to pull Jiang Cheng back. “Enough,” he tried to say, “Jiang Cheng, let go, what are you doing? Are you trying to kill him?!”
“I am!” Jiang Cheng screamed. “Scum like him deserves nothing but death!” He shook off Wei Wuxian’s hold harshly, nearly making him fall. “Lan Wangji, do you dare deny it now ? That you did with him as you saw fit and then abandoned him, that you took his child for yourself like a trophy?”
“Be quiet!” Lan Wangji snapped.
His eyes were wide, his face was pale, and he glanced at Wei Wuxian in incomprehensible fear.
“Be quiet,” he repeated shakily; “Don’t say another word.”
“Why shouldn’t I? Are you afraid your new concubine is going to know the kind of master you are?”
Lan Wangji pushed off Sandu at last, deepening the cut at his neck, out of which blood flecked to stain his robes. The sword fell down several steps again. Its glimmer left strokes of white light within Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
Wei Wuxian managed to hold Jiang Cheng back from striking forward again. Jiang Cheng struggled madly, so much so that Wei Wuxian felt himself call upon the dark energy simmering in the air without meaning to. From far below the mountain, he heard the echo of Wen Ning’s conscious answer him.
No, don’t come, he thought toward his friend as Jiang Cheng took hold of him with one hand and tried to push him off.
“Are you ashamed now?” Jiang Cheng bellowed. Not once did he look aside, although his hold was bruising Wei Wuxian’s upper arm. “Are you even capable of shame? You must’ve thought no one would remember his face!”
“Stop talking!” Lan Wangji yelled.
Wei Wuxian stared at him wordlessly. He had never heard Lan Wangji yell before.
“Your luck has run out, Hanguang-Jun!” Jiang Cheng’s voice came as solid as rock, although, Wei Wuxian saw in beatitude, tears were now streaming down his face. “I will never forget him.”
“Jiang Cheng, what are you talking about,” Wei Wuxian tried to ask, “whatever it is, stop attacking him—”
Jiang Cheng shook him off at last. He stepped close to Lan Wangji once more and spat into his opponent’s fear-struck face, “Lan Yuan, huh?”
He heaved. He trembled. He took hold of Lan Wangji’s collar once more, and this time he looked to be holding himself up with it. As if his whole body had become too tired to bear his weight.
“Did you seriously believe I wouldn’t recognize this face?” he went on, the silence so thick around him and around them that Wei Wuxian felt it touch him like a layer of dampness, clogging his pores and mixing with his sweat.
His skin was now too large and too slack, as if he ought to be molting out of it.
Like Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji seemed to have forgotten the sword he held. He stayed still and weak before him like a scolded child failing to find excuses.
He never stopped looking at Wei Wuxian. But whatever it was he meant to convey through his eyes and through the earnest turn of his body, Wei Wuxian failed to understand. His blood ran audibly behind his ears; it was all that he could hear anymore.
“He looks exactly like him,” Jiang Cheng said suddenly. “Gods, he looks so much like him…”
His shoulders sagged. His face twisted, haunted, agonized.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji whispered.
There was something there that Wei Wuxian felt was wrong, but he could not make sense of any of it. All he did was meet Lan Wangji’s eyes and breathe through the layer of silk covering his nose and mouth.
How odd, that breathing should be so difficult. The air was hot and dry and the mountains a lush green, and the stairs under his feet were made of cold hard stone. There was no rift to find as far as the eye could see. Wind should sweep over the climbing path and find its way to his lungs in one easy inhale.
“Don’t say his name.”
Jiang Cheng’s voice was once more swallowed in fury.
“You have no right to say his name,” he said. His hand lifted again, and this time it was not cloth that it grasped, but skin. Jiang Cheng squeezed around Lan Wangji’s neck with the strength of a full-grown cultivator and sect leader, who needed neither weapon nor aid to kill the common folk.
Lan Wangji let him.
“I’ve let you live for far too long,” Jiang Cheng said. “I should have killed you on the day you came out of that cave.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian begged.
He clawed at his arm and sleeve again to no avail.
“I’m going to kill you now,” Jiang Cheng whispered into Lan Wangji’s ashen face. “And once your neck is broken, I will take that boy away from the rotten sect he grew up in, not knowing that his mentor was his father’s murderer. I’ll bring him back where he belongs.”
But as his fist closed and bent to seize the bones of Lan Wangji’s nape and do as he promised, Lan Wangji wrapped a hand around it to stop him and said in a rage, “Don’t touch him.”
“He is not yours!” Jiang Cheng roared. “I don’t care who sired him, he was never yours, and I won’t allow you to hurt any more members of my family.”
But Wei Wuxian might as well have screamed underwater. He realized it as Lan Wangji struggled at last and tore Jiang Cheng’s griping fingers away from him. The skin of his neck tore open. Blood seeped out of the raw scratches, but all that Lan Wangji did was lift Bichen again. In front of him, Jiang Cheng raised his hand, calling for Sandu.
The sword flew up, and Wei Wuxian found himself letting go of Jiang Cheng’s arm to grab the blade bare-handed before it could rejoin its master.
He barely winced as it cut into his palm. Slick blood rendered his hold slippery, threatening to allow the sword an escape, so he grabbed its handle as well and readied himself to struggle.
But the weapon settled, suddenly, into his hand, not burning him as it ought to or thrashing within his grasp but simply letting him hold it.
Jiang Cheng did not even turn to look at him. As if he had not noticed at all that he had reached for a weapon, or forgotten it altogether as it failed to come to him quickly enough, he aimed again to grab Lan Wangji’s neck once more. He took hold of Lan Wangji’s arm and bent it with the strength of an enraged bear in order to break it.
Wei Wuxian used Sandu’s decorated pommel to strike the inside of Jiang Cheng’s elbow and make him step sideways. He tried to climb to the stone buff and place himself between the both of them in that moment of confusion. His body shook as if he had starved for days, and his knees wobbled under him. “Let’s go,” he told Lan Wangji. To hell with what they had come for, to hell with this place or any of those living in it; he could not even remember why they were there.
He threw Sandu away, letting it become lost in the fog-filled space surrounding them, and tugged at Lan Wangji’s arm. His hand still bled liberally; the white cloth soaked in the blood. His chest squeezed all the air out of him at the sight as if he were drowning, but he did not stop even to choke.
Before he could bring the both of them down three of the narrow steps, he felt his shoulder be pulled back; and before he could wonder why, he was pushing Lan Wangji out of the way, taking his place, and was struck across the face.
A cry sounded somewhere in the distance. Wei Wuxian thought it might have been Lan Wangji’s voice. His head rang with the strength of the blow. The world around him turned white, and his hearing became a thin and hight-pitched note. He vaguely felt himself fall and roll down the stairs, hitting his back, his shoulders, and his chest on the sharp angles. When finally he stopped, he coughed loudly; screaming pain erupted out of his ribs.
A white shape was by his side a bare second later, lifting his aching back off of the steps to rest it upon the robes covering Lan Wangji’s legs.
“Can you hear me?” Lan Wangji was asking.
Wei Wuxian took in a whistling breath and replied, “I’m fine.”
Instead of saying anything more—a scolding, a comforting word—Lan Wangji touched the side of his face. Only then did Wei Wuxian feel the liquid warmth of blood; drops ran out of the place he had been hit and slid down his temple and his ear.
Lan Wangji caught them with feather-light fingers. He brushed his unstained sleeve over the cut so delicately that Wei Wuxian hardly felt it. Then he bent over Wei Wuxian’s body to take hold of his bleeding hand. Wei Wuxian looked at it for the first time: a deep gash had sliced open his palm and cut across each of his knuckles.
Lan Wangji’s own fingers were steady as he examined the injury. He’s shaking, Wei Wuxian thought anyway, as if he were the heated blood in Lan Wangji’s veins running through the man’s body in fury.
He tore his hand out of Lan Wangji’s gentle hold right as the man started to move; he deliberately used it to grab his wrist and murmur, “Don’t.”
“He hit you,” Lan Wangji said.
His voice was barely audible.
“One punch isn’t worth killing each other over.”
He met Lan Wangji’s eyes from below. There was a sudden eagerness in them, a brilliance made only more striking by the curtain of his falling hair. In this closed space, only the both of them breathed.
I know what you are going to say, Wei Wuxian thought.
Although he could not have told, exactly, what it was. It still felt like an obvious and precious thing.
He found himself smiling weakly. “Come on,” he told Lan Wangji. “We have things to do. Let’s not waste all of our efforts over this, alright?”
As if Jiang Cheng’s punch had struck all the mist out of his mind, he could now remember their path through the mountains and the mystery of Nie Mingjue’s dismembered body; and Xue Yang driven insane by his own love, and Jin Ling, and Lan Jingyi’s wonderful existence.
Let them not waste this journey over one strike too many.
The curtain of hair lifted, allowing sunlight to brush Lan Wangji’s face once more. Wei Wuxian let himself be pulled to his feet with a care he could not remember being given before. Though now that he was lucid, Jiang Cheng’s accusations and words dug within him and made him want to search the depths of Lan Wangji’s eyes for an explanation, he instead took the time to straighten the veil over his face and brush the blood off of his temple. His injured hand, he simply kept pressed against his shoulder to lessen the bleeding until he could find time to clean and bandage it.
Then the hardest part came. He looked up from the sunlit stairs and met Jiang Cheng’s eyes.
Jiang Cheng’s fist was still raised. As if he could not—or did not think to—unclench it, it remained as it had been before striking Wei Wuxian. His knuckles were a raw red. They would bruise later on.
He was looking at Wei Wuxian in bewilderment. A nervous laugh threatened to escape Wei Wuxian’s lips at the sight; Jiang Cheng seemed so young like this, and if not for the distress that his body displayed, one could have thought him back to the grassy training grounds of the Lotus Pier, looking at Wei Wuxian in shock as he finally managed to land a hit on him.
He was silent as Wei Wuxian reached his level, not even gracing Lan Wangji with a glance, as though he had not threatened and tried to murder him just a minute ago.
Wei Wuxian stopped in front of him. “Have you calmed down?” he asked him.
Jiang Cheng’s lips trembled. His bruised hand finally opened; he lowered his arm awkwardly, as if he were the one sore all over rather than Wei Wuxian.
Finally, he said: “I didn’t mean to do that.”
Wei Wuxian replied tiredly and thoughtlessly, “You didn’t mean to do a lot of things.”
It was saying too much, but Wei Wuxian could not be frightened anymore. What did it matter, after all, if Jiang Cheng figured out who Mo Xuanyu truly was? Hiding from him seemed futile now. Let him find out and rage, let him look for a fight once more rather than think on his own actions. Wei Wuxian did not wait for an apology, for he knew Jiang Cheng would not give one. He walked up the stairs again with Lan Wangji in his shadow.
Whether to Mo Xuanyu or Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng would not apologize.
The left side of his chest ached just under the line of his breast. Whether that was a bruise or a broken rib, he could not tell until he found room and time to examine himself. The rest of him was sore as well, but nothing close to that pinching pain, making his breath stutter with each step he took. Lan Wangji did not offer him his help, as Wei Wuxian would have refused it. He simply followed behind as Wei Wuxian painstakingly climbed the rest of the way to the open doors of the Jin sect’s manor.
They were only just past them when another voice came, calling, “Wangji.”
And this time Wei Wuxian could not help but bend forward and choke on a moan of pain.
Lan Wangji put a hand under his elbow to support him at the same time as he replied, “Brother.”
Looking Jiang Cheng in the eye as guilt and anger swirled within them seemed like child’s play in comparison. Wei Wuxian refused to lift the head as Lan Xichen approached; he saw only the man’s white-clad legs, and only long enough to see him come close, before he turned his face away.
His aching ribs became an aching everything. Ghostly spasms spread through all of his middle and then down his belly, down his back, down his pelvis. He shook off Lan Wangji’s hand and pretended all was fine, but frost seemed to have crawled along the tips of his fingers.
“I did not think you would come,” Lan Xichen said. Each of his words became another muffled cry of pain. “Is something wrong?”
“The disciples told me you hadn’t come home in a long time. I missed you.”
Lan Wangji must have nodded or replied in kind. He must be looking at Wei Wuxian again, confused and worried, as his grip became tighter around Wei Wuxian’s arm.
Lan Xichen gasped suddenly. “Are you wounded?” he asked. He took a step forward, and he must have lifted a hand to look at the scratches around Lan Wangji’s neck. Then he gasped once more. “Why is your sleeve covered in—”
“I am fine,” Lan Wangji said, cutting him off. “I am not the one injured.”
Only then did Lan Xichen seem to notice Wei Wuxian’s presence.
“This is…” Lan Xichen said.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t panic now. He couldn’t make a mess of things by letting shame engulf him and reveal him for who he was. Wei Wuxian was a long-dead monster in the minds of these people; if Lan Wangji were found to have hidden and helped him, his life would be over. Jiang Cheng would not have the heart to expose him, Wei Wuxian hoped, but Lan Xichen was different. He would not let his brother suffer shame.
In this, they were rather similar. But Lan Xichen was perhaps the only person alive who could kill him in one word. All others, bitter enemies and beloved friends alike, were gone.
“My name is Mo Xuanyu,” Wei Wuxian said, though he could not fully turn to face the man. “We haven’t met before.”
The golden gates of the Tower blinded him as he dared to raise his head. Lan Xichen, who was staring at him, spared no curiosity for Wei Wuxian’s clothes or the veil masking his face. His expression was pleasant and familiar, nothing at all like the disgust he had shown on that snowing day such a long time ago. The gleaming ground sent sunlight back over his face, ornating it with sparks of light.
Then Lan Xichen’s polite smile fell, and Wei Wuxian felt that he would soon fall over in agony.
But another person came then and broke apart the spell. He was a short man wearing a variation of the Lin clan’s uniform inlaid with actual gold thread. His front and back were embroidered in the shape of open peonies.
“Wangji?” the man called, surprised but not unpleased. “I did not think I would see you here.”
Lan Wangji moved next to Wei Wuxian, bowing the head and replying, “Sect leader Jin.”
“It has been a long time. My apologies for not sending you an invitation. If I’d known you wished to come, I would have.”
“No need for apologies.”
The man must be the Jin Guangyao Wei Wuxian had heard of. Jin Guangshan’s bastard who had become sect leader after Jin Zixuan died. So exhausted was Wei Wuxian that not even those thoughts could awaken the old guilt, and so he examined Jin Guangyao, looking for familiarity in his features and stance.
There was none that he could find. He recalled Jin Guangshan as a greedy creature bejeweled in gold, sitting in the shade with servants on each side fanning him dutifully, on that day atop Phoenix Mountain when Wei Wuxian had threatened him. He had been a sharp-boned man with an adamant chin, tall in stature and always moving arrogantly. If Jin Guangyao was his son, then he must have inherited his looks solely from the one who birthed him. He stood in elegant stillness, his face shadowed by Lan Xichen’s body, and his gaze was kind and eager.
He bore no resemblance to his half-brother either. This was a kindness, Wei Wuxian thought; Jin Ling alone was enough of a reminder.
Sect leader Jin Guangyao still looked familiar, however. His gentle voice slowly brought back a memory: Phoenix Mountain again, the suffocating heat outside of the forest where the competition was to take place. Wei Wuxian had walked there for a short while, side by side with a man who had the very same voice.
His name had been… “Meng Yao,” Wei Wuxian said.
All three men turned to look at him. He did not flush—he had not known embarrassment in eons—but he was glad for the mask he wore nonetheless. An uncomfortable second was spent as he searched for a way of explaining his words. Before he could, however, Lan Xichen stepped between him and Meng Yao.
“This is Mo Xuanyu,” he told Meng Yao. “Wangji brought him along…”
The older brother looked at the younger as if expecting him to give an explanation. Whatever he was feeling then showed oddly on his face: his brow was tense and his eyes shifty.
He needn’t have worried, for Meng Yao himself stepped forth to look at Wei Wuxian. “Mo Xuanyu?” he repeated.
Wei Wuxian remained quiet for a moment more; then he answered, “Yes.”
“That is a surprise. I did not think you would come back.”
What could he say to that?
Jin Ling had said that Mo Xuanyu was thrown out of the Jin sect in shame, but the pitiful man had left no hint as to the reason for his excommunication before he died. Wei Wuxian had spent too long now disguised as the reject Mo Xuanyu, and met too many people who knew him by that name. He withstood Meng Yao’s observation stilly.
Perhaps Meng Yao did not know or care about Mo Xuanyu enough to ask further questions. He called one of the disciples following him with a simple wave of the hand, telling them: “Please prepare rooms for our guests. They must be near the gardens—I know you enjoy the solitude there,” he added, looking fondly at Lan Wangji.
Then, glancing at Wei Wuxian’s bleeding hand: “And bring some medicine.”
Wei Wuxian did not wait for Lan Wangji to give his thanks or his acknowledgement. He followed behind the young disciple without a look behind and let the nondescript smells of the Tower’s great hall do away with his nervousness. Among those, the faint zhongyong-scent of the disciple was not so bothersome.
He felt Lan Wangji rejoin his side without the need to look.
They were shown to a lonely room whose farther wall sat at the edge of the mountain. The windows there, once opened, gave out to the endless fall below. Wei Wuxian spent a second looking out after the qianyuan maidservant was done placing the frames onto the wooden beams.
He heard one of the disciples whisper, “Sect leader said two different rooms,” to the maid.
“Two rooms? But the guest only brought his kunze with him…”
“That’ll be all,” Wei Wuxian said loudly. “You may leave now.”
They looked at him in awkward silence, but he did not care to speak again and fight the two trembling youths torn between his audacity and their master’s orders. He threw his traveling bag over the bed. Lan Wangji, who still stood by the door, ignored the silence as well.
Wei Wuxian smiled as the maid and the disciple finally left wordlessly.
“Nice of you not to help me,” he told Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji replied, “Why would I?”
He would have laughed if Lan Wangji did not still look so upset. The distress he must feel was as obvious to the eye as the lacerations around his neck. Those had stopped seeping blood, but they were bruising already in the clear shape of a hand’s hold. He was not facing Wei Wuxian when he approached to take hold of his wrist; he simply unfolded the fingers to look at the gash in Wei Wuxian’s palm.
Jiang Cheng had said, You took his child for yourself like a trophy.
Wei Wuxian took back his hand. “I can take care of it myself,” he said, not quite hearing his own voice.
Lan Wangji stayed standing where he was, immobile and quiet.
Cleaning the wound was quick work. The sharp burn of the healing powder was not enough to make him wince, and neither was the pain in his side, which seemed to have dwindled since the memories of labor pain overcame him.
After all, nothing could compare to that.
Lan Wangji only moved when he saw him grab the bandage. He took it from him silently and sat down next to him on the bed. He then wrapped the strip of cloth around Wei Wuxian’s hand much more quickly and easily than Wei Wuxian could have. He tied the bandage carefully, opened the bottle of ointment with deft fingers, applied it onto the vivid bruise no doubt spreading across the side of Wei Wuxian’s face. When he was done and tried to rise to his feet, Wei Wuxian stopped him.
He had only needed to grab the blood-soaked sleeve. It was still wet, although it had stopped dripping, and Wei Wuxian’s uninjured hand came back stained red when he let go of it. He knew then what he wanted to do, and he took hold of Lan Wangji’s silk belt before he could think better of it.
In their youth, all of Wei Wuxian’s peers had likened Lan Wangji to a cold-hearted statue of a boy. He had been the severe heir of the most severe clan, someone uninterested in the childish joys that the rest of them shared: he did not drink, he did not gamble, he did not read the little red books that Nie Huaisang liked to lend them. The boring genius of their generation stayed confined between the dusty shelves of the Cloud Recesses’ library and did not even care to stare at them in envy, like any young person smothered by their clan’s expectations should. It was as if Lan Wangji enjoyed solitude the most. As if he were ready since birth for the life of an ascetic.
At this blissful time of his life, before he must fully be recognized for his status, Wei Wuxian had enjoyed nothing more than to trouble still waters. Plucking at Lan Wangji’s strings was just another rock thrown into a dark lake. But instead of a cold-skinned statue, what he found in Lan Wangji was a young man of deep emotions and fiery spirit. Lan Wangji had been the only one then to truly answer him, be it in words or actions; and the first one to touch him and look him in the eye and see.
Wei Wuxian thought he had forgotten all about those feelings he once turned into drafts of paintings. But as Lan Wangji squirmed away from his touch now, not out of shame or revulsion, but out of that same embarrassment which had once been their secret, he recalled them. As he took the belt off and pulled the white outer robes off Lan Wangji’s shoulders, he smiled.
He smiled at that old self of his who didn’t know what a miracle his freedom was.
And as Lan Wangji looked back to him, he seemed again to be the boy in the cold spring who had told him, You cannot be here.
I can, Wei Wuxian thought. And I will be.
“Jiang Cheng didn’t hold back,” he said softly.
Lan Wangji did not answer. His eyes shone feverishly, although his complexion was still a sickly white. Wei Wuxian made him raise his chin with two fingers and looked for a long time at the claw marks around his neck.
He let go of his chin and opened one of the ointments that the maidservant had brought. He applied it over each scratch, feeling the shivers of the skin under his finger pads.
But he didn’t linger. He did not either take the time to see to his own bruises—they were only bruises, and the soreness would fade on its own. He sat on the bed and looked around the room. The walls were white, although not as bright as could be, as he could see the paint cracking around each wall’s corner. Still the sun shone through the paper windows and the wind blew into the opening. Such a room in such a place would be warm during the day and cool at night. It was surprising to see it so isolated and unused.
At least until he saw the papers on the shelf at the end of the room and recognized the handwriting.
“Do you come here often?” he asked.
“No,” Lan Wangji replied. “My brother is the one who comes most of the time.”
“Those were written by you, though.”
Lan Wangji looked up, seeing the shelf Wei Wuxian was speaking of. “They are letters,” he simply said.
“Who is the child Jiang Cheng was speaking of?”
Lan Wangji exhaled, quick and loud, before closing his mouth.
Wei Wuxian felt the odd urge to place a hand over his own lips. Jiang Cheng’s words rang through his head: ‘You abandoned him. You took his child for yourself like a trophy.’
“I don’t believe you would abandon someone who gave birth to your child,” Wei Wuxian said. “I… Other people would, but not you.”
His palate pulsated in time with his heartbeat. This time he did feel a flush rise up his neck, although not one of shame. He placed his hand over his mouth, uncaring of the drying blood still marring it—if anything, the nauseating smell settled him.
“Wei Ying, I…”
Lan Wangji seemed frightened and resolute at once, as he was at the bottom of the mountain while saying that he needed to show him something.
“Never mind,” Wei Wuxian said as Lan Wangji started speaking once more.
A lone breath answered him.
He swallowed, although his tongue was dry and thick. “It’s none of my business,” he declared. “Whatever feud you have with Jiang Cheng. You have your secrets, and I…”
And I have mine, he wanted to add; but hadn’t he shared those already?
Hadn’t he broken apart the shell hiding his ugliest and most terrible secret in that inn in Yiling? Hadn’t he proven his trust and vulnerability? Did Lan Wangji not feel that he was worthy of the same?
He had spoken of a child as well: one he hated, rejected, and let die. Compared to that, there was nothing Lan Wangji could say that would make Wei Wuxian think less of him.
Wei Wuxian rose to his feet and said, “I’ll take a walk around. I’ve never really visited the Golden Tower.”
As he reached the corridor, he added: “Don’t let Jiang Cheng jump you again. He might actually remember to use his sword this time.”
He slid the door shut behind him in one muted sound.
“All I said was that it’s a shame for the Jin clan not to have a proper heir.”
The boy who spoke was wearing a dark green uniform, one of many unknown colors among the group he was in—disciples of communal sects come along their elders to attend the gathering. The chance of them all knowing each other was small, but then again, nothing forged bonds between strangers like disdain for a common enemy.
Although Jin Ling was no enemy of theirs—or anyone, in truth—he was blessed with the gift of rudeness, and the ability for anything to spark anger within him, as long as he inferred it was directed his way.
He was right in this moment, of course. Lan Sizhui still told him half-heartedly, “You shouldn’t pay attention to them.”
Jin Ling had already taken steps toward the group of foreign disciples and did not pay attention to him at all.
“Just let him have a go at them,” Lan Jingyi said. “Or them at him, I suppose.”
“We aren’t on a training ground.”
“The old master says all sect grounds are training grounds for reputation and eloquence.”
Lan Sizhui felt torn between the need to scold him and the inevitable laughter that Jingyi’s words always provoked.
He could not very well engage the other disciples in a fight, given that these were not the Cloud Recesses and that their sect leader had obviously only agreed to their presence for lack of time to sermon them. Jin Ling would have to fight on his own. He had already reached the group of rueful guests, who had no choice this time but to face him as they spoke.
“Do you have a problem with me?” he told them haughtily.
“Oh, no, young master Jin. We wouldn’t dare.”
Lan Sizhui hoped against all reason for Jin Ling not to turn this into a fistfight. Jin Ling, however, had already grabbed the speaker’s collar with one hand, although he was noticeably shorter than him.
“Where do you think you are? Who do you think you are?” Arrogance dripped out of his mouth with every word. “I can have you thrown out of here with one word, you lowlife.”
“Ah yes, isn’t that always the way of things around the Jin clan?” the taller boy spoke.
He did not struggle against Jin Ling’s hold, and neither did anyone else dare to defend him physically. His words instead tried to aim as deep and true as they could.
“I’ve heard all about the great Lanlingjin sect. Haven’t you?” The other disciples nodded. “About your bastard sect leader and how he got rid of all his competitors for leadership.”
Jin Ling shoved the boy in a rage, preparing to strike him with his fist, but this time the boy grabbed him to defend himself.
“You shut up now!” Jin Ling yelled.
“Or what? You’ll throw me down the stairs yourself?”
“Just try me!”
“Aren’t you awfully confident for a mere zhongyong, only named heir because there was no one better—”
The two of them were now brawling and trying to make each other fall, or to free one hand to be able to land a hit. Not all who surrounded them were as foolish as the green-clad youth—most of them had stepped back, some laughing, some looking aside awkwardly—and Lan Sizhui took a definite step forward.
“Don’t,” Lan Jingyi said as he took hold of his wrist, “you’ll get in trouble too. Jin Ling is fine, it’s not like his uncle will whip him for it.”
Which uncle? Sizhui wondered. He had met Jiang Wanyin only once, but it had been enough to measure him for a short-tempered and cheerless man.
“Everyone knows the Jin sect is just using their money and power to rule over everyone else,” the stranger was saying now, after a curt and pained grunt. “You think we’re all so stupid because we’re small compared to you?”
“No way! Your stupid clan forced everyone to bend to your leader’s deranged ideas about night-hunting rules and about the kunze—”
Sizhui pulled his arm out of Jingyi’s hold firmly, but the rude boy gave out a cry of pain before he could take one step toward the fight. The boy fell to his knees, both of his hands releasing Jin Ling’s robes and pressing against the side of his head.
He was moaning and tearing up as everyone looked at him in askance. Then he pulled his hands away from his temple, where indeed he was bleeding, and yelled toward the garden’s entrance: “What do you think you’re doing?”
Lan Sizhui turned his head to look as well.
There was someone leaning against the wide doors, and for a moment he could not make sense of what he was seeing. The person was clad in a delicate dress of dark silk, their hair tied up and adorned with a silver pin, their face half-masked by a modest black veil. Yet the typical kunze wear seemed off and nearly upsetting to see, and it was not until they spoke that Sizhui understood why.
“Can you take your arguments somewhere else?” he asked.
“Senior Mo!” Jingyi exclaimed, at the same time as Sizhui’s heart gave a loud and startled beat.
“What are you doing here?”
“How have you been?”
“What are you wearing?”
They had all three of them spoken at once. Lan Jingyi gave a sneer in Jin Ling’s direction, who blushed uglily and glared at Mo Xuanyu as if it were his fault. Sizhui, in the meantime, could not stop looking at him either, although for different reasons.
He simply looked so odd, with his dark and rough skin coming out of the silk robes and the veil over his face—as if anyone could look at him and not know who he was! Lan Sizhui had never seen him wear anything but the most practical of dresses, all in somber colors, often torn at the edges or stained with dirt around the legs. He could hear Lan Jingyi by his side starting to laugh at Mo Xuanyu’s ridiculous appearance, but laughter was very far from Sizhui’s mind.
He felt like crying, although there was no reason to. His eyes started burning with tears. He gauchely turned his back to them all to wipe them, and his fingers were stiff and hot.
“Who are you?” the boy spat in Mo Xuanyu’s direction, still holding his bleeding temple and wincing. “Did you—did you throw a rock at me?”
Mo Xuanyu ignored him.
“Why are you always mad at someone whenever we meet?” he was asking Jin Ling, who was now furiously smoothing the creases in his uniform. “This lot isn’t worth your attention.”
“As if you’d know anything about it,” Jin Ling replied, glaring.
And as if the heavens themselves wanted to prove him wrong, the bleeding boy called, “I’m speaking to you, kunze!”
Jingyi trembled beside Sizhui, who had turned back around. After a quick glance from Mo Xuanyu, he decided against intervening. His shoulders relaxed visibly; a shadow of a smile showed into Mo Xuanyu’s eyes. He watched Sizhui then with the air of someone meeting an acquaintance: neither friend nor family, but someone familiar all the same.
What’s wrong with me? Sizhui thought, frightened. He was tearing up once more.
At last Mo Xuanyu addressed the group of unknown disciples. “Don’t you have better things to do? Other weaklings to make fun of?”
The tall boy’s face turned crimson with outrage; he spat again, “How dare you speak to me like—”
But he cried out once more as he fell to the dirt ground, and this time he was bleeding just between his thin eyebrows. A new pebble had hit him, flicked by Mo Xuanyu’s fingers, as quick as an arrow.
He yelled again: “You impertinent kunze, know your damn place!”
“Fifteen years ago,” Mo Xuanyu replied, “your parents probably shook in fear upon hearing my name.”
The air seemed to have frosted; the heavy sunlight baking the flower plots, the warm southern wind, all seemed to have become a cold winter’s touch, and even the flowers’ petals ployed, as if bearing the weight of snow.
Breaking the icy silence, Mo Xuanyu said: “Scram.”
The boy spoke no more. He and his fellow disciples took a few halting steps toward the door, no doubt fearful of having to walk so close to Mo Xuanyu to leave. Mo Xuanyu did nothing to them, however. He did not even look at them.
Once they were all gone, Lan Jingyi laughed at last: “That was amazing, senior Mo.”
“Was it?” Mo Xuanyu left the wall he was leaning on to approach the three of them. “It’s not as if I was fighting a demonic beast,” he said. “Scaring off a few kids isn’t such a feat.”
Lan Jingyi snickered in delight. Lan Sizhui smiled through his stupor, managing at last to escape the twisting of his heart.
A few feet away from them, Jin Ling muttered, “I’m not a weakling.”
Mo Xuanyu chuckled. He ruffled Jin Ling’s hair as he walked by, making the boy yell in outrage, although he was eager to follow in his footsteps just like Sizhui and Jingyi were. They were quick to surround him; as Jin Ling was still maudlin and Jingyi still too satisfied to pay attention to much else, Sizhui hurried to walk closest to Mo Xuanyu.
“Why did you come here?” he asked, trying not to sound too earnest. “I never thought you would enjoy this sort of event.”
“I should be asking you that. How did you convince that old man to let you wander on your own again after that fiasco in Yi City?”
Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi looked at each other quickly.
Before Sizhui could stop him, Jingyi replied: “We, uh… We didn’t go back home. But our sect leader gave his permission once we arrived!”
“I’m sure he did,” Mo Xuanyu replied. “As I am sure that you’ll both find this regrouping of grand masters riveting and not run around looking for trouble.”
Not even Jin Ling could have mistaken this for anything but a joke.
Jin Ling, however, chose to talk about something completely different. “You really have some nerve, coming back here uninvited,” he told Mo Xuanyu. “Little Uncle must’ve lost his mind when he saw you.”
“I suppose you’re talking about Meng… about Jin Guangyao, and not Jiang Cheng,” Mo Xuanyu said. Sizhui watched him look thoughtfully at Jin Ling. “He didn’t seem too angry about my presence,” Mo Xuanyu added, “so no need to worry about me.”
“I’m not worried!”
Lan Jingyi laughed shamelessly.
They walked together along the paths of the gardens, near rows of gigantic hydrangeas spilling over the meager gates of their enclosures, around a century-old tree whose bark was as wrinkled as an old man’s face, past the plots where grew the kings of the flowers, the open peonies of the Lanlingjin sect themselves. Although few words were exchanged during that time, Lan Sizhui was smiling. So was Lan Jingyi. Even Jin Ling couldn’t help but look pleased that Mo Xuanyu took so much time to appreciate this place that Golden Tower was so widely known for.
This had become so familiar, Sizhui found: walking around with Jingyi and Jin Ling, and Mo Xuanyu a step ahead guiding them through the wilderness.
“Growing all of these at such a high altitude must have been exhausting work,” Mo Xuanyu said as they lingered before a bush sprinkled with little violet flowers. “Some of those aren’t supposed to grow in summer at all.”
“I have no idea about that,” Jin Ling replied. “There’s always been a whole army of people taking care of the place every day. Cultivators, even.”
“So you don’t have much interest in this place.”
Jin Ling frowned. “Not really,” he said. Then, defensively: “Are you going to make fun of me for it? There’s tons of other things I’m interested in!”
But Mo Xuanyu did not reply. He looked about the open space to take in the plants soaked in sunlight and the shadows under the trees cutting sharp shapes into the pebbled ground. His chest swelled as he breathed in the humid air. For a second, his eyes closed.
“Someone once told me that I would love these gardens,” he explained. “I suppose he was right.”
He stayed silent after that until they reached the next open doors.
Several people were gathered there, discussing the event to come in voices hushed or loud in turn. Thankfully, none of the disciples from earlier seemed to be there. They were mostly ignored as they made their way through, although Mo Xuanyu did inspire a few stares.
The corridor inside seemed so dark compared to the bright midday sun. The cool air caught onto droplets of perspiration under Lan Sizhui’s lips and at the crook of his neck, making him shiver.
“Mother!” Jin Ling exclaimed.
He then turned the head fiercely around, obviously daring anyone—daring Jingyi—to make him feel embarrassed. None of them did. Jingyi and Sizhui simply bowed to greet the young Madam Jin.
There was a short woman following in her steps, dressed in fine periwinkle robes, draped in a sweet wine-like scent. Unlike Mo Xuanyu, she did not hide it.
“Did you do something bad?” The woman asked Jin Ling, who blushed once more and bit out, “No,” unconvincingly.
“A-jie, I think he’s lying.”
“What do you think we should do about that?” Jiang Yanli asked, unperturbed.
The woman nodded. She approached Jin Ling and, with no warning whatsoever, pinched one of his ears.
“Ouch, stop, stop!” he cried out.
“Then tell your mother why we heard three different guests complain about your attitude,” the woman said. “Or should I call A-Ying and let her play with you?”
Jin Ling gasped, paling all at once.
“Linfeng-jie,” he all but begged. “I’m sorry, I promise, I won’t fight with anyone again, don’t let Third Sister catch me. Please!”
The woman was smiling now. She kept pinching Jin Ling’s ear playfully, until Lan Jingyi did away with all propriety and started laughing at the spectacle. Lan Sizhui worried then that the young madam would be offended and prepared for an apology.
Young Madam Jin was not where she had last stood, however. She had walked around them all and right to Mo Xuanyu’s side, who seemed to be expecting her.
Lan Sizhui barely managed to hear her words through Jin Ling’s yelps and Lan Jingyi’s chuckles.
“Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Yanli saluted.
Her voice knocked into the name as if she had never pronounced it before, or if they were words from a foreign tongue. Yet her stance told Sizhui that she had already met him; Mo Xuanyu, in front of her, was not shocked to see her either.
But he remained silent.
One might have found this look and this silence a clear sign of disapproval, but Jiang Yanli did not. “I’d like to speak with you,” she went on bravely.
“Of course,” Mo Xuanyu replied.
For some reason, his tone made Jiang Yanli weary. She sighed. “Please,” she said. “I don’t wish to fight you. Not this time.”
Mo Xuanyu suddenly looked over her shoulder. He met Sizhui’s eyes, and Sizhui looked elsewhere in a sloppy attempt not to be caught eavesdropping.
He felt hot in the neck with embarrassment.
Still he looked from the corner of his eyes as Jiang Yanli took hold of Mo Xuanyu’s elbow, as Mo Xuanyu stopped moving even to breathe, and as she pulled him down the dark hallway until they disappeared.
Behind Lan Sizhui, Jin Ling suddenly yelled: “Uncle!”
He startled. Jingyi’s laughter ceased, and as Sizhui looked back around, he saw the woman suddenly let go of Jin Ling as if she had been burned.
Sect leader Jiang was approaching from the opposite doors, looking somber as always, moving in powerful strides without a care for who stood in his way. Jin Ling’s face became less hopeful as he came closer.
The woman he had called sister had stepped back into the shadow of the wall and bent the neck. She looked to be trying to fold herself down to nothing. She greeted, “Sect leader,” in a flimsy whisper.
He only glanced at her lightly.
“What were you doing?” Jiang Wanyin asked Jin Ling.
Lan Jingyi let out a snort, which he immediately tried to mask behind his hands.
He was only given a glance, too.
“Never mind, I don’t have time to deal with you right now,” Jiang Wanyin said. “Did you see your mother?”
Jin Ling grimaced. “Yeah. She went off with that bastard Mo Xuanyu—ow!”
“Watch your words,” Jiang Wanyin growled, pulling back the hand with which he had slapped the back of Jin Ling’s head. “Or I’ll let Wen Yueying loose on you.”
Jin Ling protested violently once more, as if he could think of nothing scarier than that third sister of his. Jiang Wanyin let him complain and watched the dark hallway behind Lan Sizhui without another word.
Then he walked back whence he came, only slowing for a moment in front of the woman’s frightened form.
She shook visibly upon being called.
Something extraordinary happened, then: Jiang Wanyin stepped back and waited until whatever fear she held had stopped upsetting her. Without irritation or impatience, he waited.
Once she had finally managed to take a normal breath, he told her, “Keep an eye on Jin Ling.”
He did not leave until she found enough strength to answer, “Yes.”
They were left alone after that—Sizhui, Jingyi, Jin Ling, and the woman Wen Linfeng who still looked livid and withdrawn. Lan Jingyi was staring at her as well.
Jin Ling, however, seemed to think that nothing was amiss. “Why am I always getting scolded?” he complained.
Lan Jingyi replied, “Now that’s a question you should be asking yourself.”
Jiang Yanli waited until the servant she had called was done preparing the tea for both of them before sitting down. Try as he might, Wei Wuxian could not ignore the wince of pain she gave out when her backside touched the cushioned seat.
He did not allow himself to finish his question, but she understood him anyway. She smiled. “I’m fine,” she told him. “This is an ache I am familiar with. I’m only feeling it now because greeting everyone was so tiring.”
He nodded, not knowing how to reply.
“Sit down,” she said, gesturing to the low seat on the opposite side. There was nothing he wanted to do less, but he obeyed.
He let her pour the tea in silence. He took the cup she handed him, a delicate white thing with cracks sewn shut with gold, in the way of those overseas crafts he had sometimes witnessed. He took a sip of the tea, breathing in the bland smell of jasmine, chasing away the heavy scent that the qianyuan servant had left behind himself.
He was only spared for so long. Jiang Yanli put down her own cup slowly, decisively, and tried to meet his eyes.
“I didn’t mean to be around Jin Ling so much,” he said before she could speak. “Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to stay away from him while I’m here.”
She took a moment to answer him. “I’m not worried,” she said at last. “I know he’s perfectly safe around you.”
“He might not be,” Wei Wuxian retorted before he could help it, and she gave a terrible, terrible smile.
He once more wished that his guilt would swallow him alive; at least she would be spared the pain of being kind to him, who deserved nothing but her hatred.
“He told me about your adventure in the haunted city,” she said. The cup pivoted between her fingers and spilled a few golden drops of tea. “Thank you for protecting him.”
“I don’t want you thanking me.”
Jiang Yanli’s eyes were an unbearable thing. Wei Wuxian could hardly recall the time when he had found in her something close to comfort. She had not understood him, not fully at least, but he was less afraid of himself around her, back then, than he was around other people. They had once wandered around the Pier’s lakeshore hand in hand. And with their feet in the viscous mud, he stealing the seeds from the close-to-shore lotuses, she scolding him half-heartedly, he had been able to speak to her of things he kept close to his heart.
“I wonder what it is you want,” Jiang Yanli said. He glanced at her again and knew that she must have been thinking of that time of their youth as well. “You don’t want me to thank you, and you feel distressed when I don’t get angry with you. Do you want me to hate you so badly?
He stayed silent.
“I thought about hating you,” she said. “For a very long time. I have to see Ling’er be mocked for his status and for Zixuan’s death during each of these gatherings. I am mocked as well, the young Madam Jin who never was.”
“You’re far from the only one who lost a spouse to me.”
She was the only one whose feelings on the topic made him ache so deeply, however; and her husband the only spouse whose death he would forever regret.
“You’re trying to give me more reasons to despise you,” she sighed.
He said nothing. It was the truth.
“You still won’t tell me how he died.”
“I told you,” he replied, “that it would make no difference.”
“I could never bring myself to believe that you killed him. I know that it was Wen Ning who gave the last blow.”
Had she looked at Jin Zixuan’s corpse for a long time, burning her eyes with tears to figure out the truth? Or had the Jin clan only captured Wen Ning at the scene of the crime and told her what they had seen—a demonic ghost with a clawed hand dripping with torn flesh and blood, and her husband’s mangled body lying on the ground?
It hadn’t been Wen Ning’s fault any more than it was a sword’s fault that a person chose to wield it to kill.
To tell her all that had happened would not soothe her grief. Better that Wei Wuxian be called a cold-blooded murderer than that she be given the truth—that the man she had always loved had betrayed her in the end, and that terror had been the reason for the sword to stab at all.
He took another sip of the tea, but it had become tasteless.
Jiang Yanli let go of the topic with a grace one could only admire. “A-Cheng told me that he hit you by accident. He was looking for you.”
Wei Wuxian gave a mocking huff. “Did he figure out who I am?”
“No, but he feels very guilty anyway. I told him I would fetch some medicine and bring it back to him, so that he could give it to you himself.”
“How kind of him.”
He watched attentively as one of her hands rose toward him. She tugged on one of the black veil’s strings, untangling the knot at the back of his head that he had not bothered to tighten very well. He allowed her a moment to look at the bruise. When she turned his head aside to expose it to the light, he did not resist her.
“I suppose Hanguang-Jun has tended to it already,” she murmured. She used her thumb to lightly stroke the wound and slip into his hair, looking for the cut.
In lieu of an answer, he chased her hand away and re-tied the veil. That his movements were too brusque, and the knot tight enough to dig painfully into the mark, he did not care at all.
Jiang Yanli let him do it, although he knew that she noticed. She simply said: “It won’t be long until A-Cheng finds out who you are. You look…”
He brushed the tip of his own nose with a finger, remembering the delicate shape of it in the river’s reflection at Mo Manor, knowing that it had changed since then.
“The spell Mo Xuanyu used to summon me isn’t common,” he said. It had never been used since he created it, after all. “I didn’t predict that it would eventually bring my appearance back, too.”
“You’ll have to be careful.”
“I don’t think many people will care what Mo Xuanyu looks like. Wei Wuxian has been dead for a long time. People barely remember me.”
Jiang Yanli frowned and said, “You’re wrong.”
Lan Wangji had said a similar thing. People would hardly remember Wei Wuxian, however. Even if the Yiling Patriarch still plagued their nightmares and memories, Wei Wuxian doubted that the thoughts they had of him matched reality. No one would remember Wei Wuxian as he was before he fell into the haunted hills of Yiling.
He had sat there long enough. Jiang Yanli’s eyes now shone with unshed tears, as he knew they always would when in his presence. He pushed himself upright, stepping on the off-white cushion, and told her, “I won’t stay here long. I won’t see Jin Ling again either.”
“I told you that it was fine,” she replied weakly. “I know he likes you. I know that you care for him, too.”
“He wouldn’t like me if he knew who I am.”
She had no answer to that.
His heart ached as he spoke his next words: “The longer he stays around me, the more he will hurt when he finds out.”
This had been his only thought when he first met the boy: that he should never see him again, and spare him the pain of knowing he was alive. And slowly that thought had twisted around. Now Wei Wuxian knew that the true reason he did not wish for Jin Ling to know the truth was for his very own sake.
He feared the pain of Jin Ling hating him. He had come to long to know that boy who looked so much like his father and acted so much like his uncle. He had not even thought to avoid him earlier as he chased away the bullies, and each second they had spent together walking through the gardens had felt a little like home.
He hadn’t known that he could still care for anyone so selfishly. But those three—Jin Ling, Lan Jingyi, and even Lan Sizhui—whom destiny decided time and time again to make him cross paths with… Those three, he did care for.
Those three, he wished he could see walking into his steps and listening to his nonsense, learning what little he could teach them, laughing for all the years he had not laughed himself, for a very long time.
“I should go,” he said. “Thank you for the tea.”
“I wish you would still call me ‘shijie’.”
Sorrow clogged up his throat. He did not look at her as he exited the room.
He spent the rest of the day hidden in the garden.
Fewer guests walked around once the shadows lengthened. Wei Wuxian paid no attention to them either way; let them look if they wanted and murmur amongst themselves about the unchaperoned kunze lying under the shadow of a tree. He kept his eyes closed and his ears open. The meditative stillness he had learned long ago came back to him rustily, until not even the sound of some insect or another flying around his ear could startle him.
He let them touch him: bees landing atop the pin he had put in his hair, confusing it for a flower; a butterfly fleeing the sudden rush of his breaths; a lone spider crawling across his palm. And the sunlight become shyer, warming his chin and his neck, before gliding down the mountainside.
He moved only when the first stars appeared. A first shiver breathed up his spine, not unlike a spider itself, and made him sit up and stretch his back. Although he had not slept, he felt caught in the sluggish state which followed untimely naps. More shivers caught onto him as he made his way back to the doors.
After he stepped into the shadowed hallway, he understood why.
There was no one around. All must have headed in direction of the grand dining hall. But the unmistakable touch of demonic energy pulled at him, guiding him the opposite way, as if holding his hand.
The cold touch led him through many corridors. But before he could reach the farthest one, feeling the energy growing with each step, a loud voice stopped him.
“What are you doing here?”
It was one of the older disciples of the Jin sect. He was squinting at Wei Wuxian in the dark, taking in his outfit and his masked face.
“I got lost,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I thought the dining hall was this way.”
“Why would you go to the dining hall?”
Right. “My qianyuan forgot something,” he said, not bothering to sound anything but annoyed. “I was looking for him.”
The disciple lost his suspicious look, predictably, and nodded in understanding.
“You’re going the wrong way. The only thing down there is our sect leader’s chamber.”
“Is it, now,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
Meng Yao’s personal aisle of the Tower, so far distant from the rest of the golden manor—and positively brimming with the freezing touch of death. He could almost see the walls crackle and turn to ice.
“Thank you,” he told the boy.
“I can accompany you to the hall—”
“No need. I just realized I forgot to take the item with me.”
He walked quickly back to the room he shared with Lan Wangji, paying no attention to the scoff of offense that the boy gave or the occasional glares he got from servants and guards who saw him wandering alone. He opened the door with more strength than warranted when he arrived.
Lan Wangji was still there, sitting on the bed with his forehead in his palm.
He quickly lifted his head as Wei Wuxian came in. Wei Wuxian could do nothing but stop at the entrance.
“Lan Zhan,” he said, once it became evident that neither of them wanted to speak first. “Why are you here?”
No one had lit any candle since he left. The faint firelight coming from the open door was all that Lan Wangji’s face could reflect. Still, his eyes shone brightly, and with his mouth open like this and his outer robes still amiss, he looked almost like a child.
There were red finger-marks over his bare forehead, as if he had been holding it for hours.
Finally, Lan Wangji replied: “I was waiting for you.”
“Shouldn’t you be at the banquet?”
Lan Wangji stared at him in confusion.
Wei Wuxian thought quickly, glancing at the white robes still spread over the bed and the silk belt peeking under its edge.
“We came to investigate, didn’t we?” he asked. He calmly walked toward the bed. “You should be socializing. See if anyone looks suspicious.”
Wei Wuxian interrupted him. “I’m not allowed there, as you probably guessed, so I’m afraid it’s up to you.”
He picked up the soiled robe, folding it carefully. Then he took the belt in hand and let his fingers brush over the sealed pouches tied to it. They became numb before he could even reach the one guarding Nie Mingjue’s broken body; he slipped it into his sleeve.
“You’ll have to change,” he said, putting the clothes down on the table by the shelves. “Unless you want to show up covered in blood.”
Lan Wangji stayed silent.
How warm Wei Wuxian’s chest was at that moment. He took off his veil and made as if to straighten his clothes, looking away, and his heart beat up his throat and tongue. Hidden within his sleeve, with no layer of cloth to cover it, the qiankun pouch burned his arm, like snow held in a child’s bare hand.
Already he could feel the haunted things within it become agitated, so close to the goal; Wei Wuxian could only thank the heavens that Lan Wangji had not touched it and noticed yet. Few people were as attuned to evil as Wei Wuxian was, but Lan Wangji certainly could have made it out.
I was right, he thought.
Something dark was hidden in sect leader Jin’s chamber, and it called to him almost sonorously.
“Aren’t you going?” he asked again.
Lan Wangji moved at last. He went to his travel bag to recover another set of outer robes and put them on silently. As he tied up his belt, as he fixed the hair that Jiang Cheng had messed up during their fight, Wei Wuxian watched him and wondered if he should tell him after all.
He was not given a choice; Lan Wangji left without another word and closed the door behind him, keeping his secrets to himself. Keeping Wei Wuxian wondering, wondering… until his nerves lit up and he felt that those thoughts would lead him nowhere but to doubt and distrust.
He did not want to distrust Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian knew fear and he knew devotion, and those were the two things whose limits no man could ever reach. He had lost everything to devotion. He had died of grief, surely. And fear had once torn him asunder and left him to rot on the ground.
The pouch that he held wrapped within a torn piece of cloth tugged him with nearly the strength of a person through the twisted corridors. What few candles were lit on the way failed to thrust through the opaque darkness, and only occasional torchlights were found where guards stood sleepily. The warren-like pathways led him at last to the entrance he had seen earlier. This time, no disciple was there to stop him.
He slid open the wooden door and stepped inside. With one fire talisman in hand, he examined the parlor—a wide room now plunged into darkness, but which must be bright at day. The far-end was not a wall, but the rock of the mountain itself. The whole room had been built thusly, hanging from the sharp side, and it certainly took courage for someone to sleep there peacefully.
The place was more tastefully decorated than he had expected: some white and red pieces of sculpted jade, a master’s delicate painting spread over a paper screen, a lacquered box full of ink sticks no doubt costlier than the whole city below.
He could not imagine that this room looked the same when Jin Guangshan was alive.
The pouch shook in his hand as he approached the screen. Wei Wuxian shoved it into the narrow belt he wore and slowly folded the painting, revealing the rock behind, rough to the touch and bleached white. He examined it for a long moment.
Nothing could truly hide the scraping that heavy doors made upon a wooden floor. There were such marks there drawing a clear arc. Wei Wuxian caressed the wall with both hands until he found a lever hidden into a narrow crack.
The door opened to a tunnel as black as night. He lit up another fire talisman and started his descent. The uneven rock stairs took him further and further down, and then along a flat path following the mountain’s flank in a long, twisting curve. He could not tell how long the journey took until he reached another door. This one revealed a small and windowless room. Someone’s feet had drawn clear tracks into the thick dust on the floor.
Another door in the minuscule room led to a decrepit set of wooden stairs hanging from the mountain flank. The stairs had crumbled halfway through, making the way impossible to cross from this side.
Wei Wuxian suddenly recognized the place. He had come here a long time ago, to this very room, and taken with him two kunze who had begged him for freedom.
He gave a kick to the thick door he had just opened, only now realizing that it was made of oak and covered in flaking ochre lacquer. No one must have lived here in a very long time.
“This can’t be all there is,” he muttered.
And indeed Nie Mingjue’s haunted remains screamed at him to go further.
Wei Wuxian followed the footprints. He pushed aside the large bed. A half-open trapdoor was there. Finally, he descended the ladder and set foot onto the ground of a great hidden room.
The room, or cave, was so cold that mist flew out of his mouth with each of his exhales. He used the last dregs of the burning talisman to light each candle he could find until, at last, he could see.
Ceiling-tall shelves occupied the whole place, all full of items of all kinds—books, weapons, mysterious artifacts obviously stolen from other lines of cultivators, even the core of a demonic beast circled with talisman paper. He had little time to observe everything, however: for the qiankun pouch almost leapt out of his hand and dragged him to the farthest corner of the cave.
There, on a solidary table, rested an object all wrapped in blood-lettered paper, in the shape and size of a man’s cut-off head.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said out loud. “I suppose we’ve finally found the rest of you, my friend. Congratulations.”
Now all there was left to do was find Lan Wangji and decide how to approach the issue of the Lanlingjin sect leader having killed and mutilated the former head of the Nie clan.
Wei Wuxian was about to blow out the candle he was holding when something else caught his eye.
A dust-free desk made of noble western wood and kept away from the mess of other treasures showed a sword, displayed on top of it, and whose rugged scabbard was obvious well-tended to. Trinkets were neatly aligned before it: spirit lures, compasses, pages covered in half-drawn arrays, all scribbled and crafted by the same pair of hands.
Wei Wuxian walked toward the desk with his mind in a haze. He hardly felt the qiankun pouch start to thrash again upon leaving the head’s side. With one hand, he took hold of the sword and lifted it from the delicate stand supporting it. The cold was instantly chased away; Suibian was as warm as if he had been holding it all along.
He caressed its pommel, unknown feelings pressing against his lungs. He then touched the broken compass, the first he had ever made; the spirit lures drawn with his own blood; the papers covered in his thoughts and his spells as he once labored to bring Wen Ning back from the dead.
Finally, he looked at and touched the edge of a clay pot big enough for a man to sit in. In it, a bush had grown, and its little white flower thrived as they once did in Yiling: far away from sunlight, kept away from all heat.
The ladder creaked in the distance; footsteps echoed against the smooth walls surounding him.
“Good evening,” said a voice kindly. “I thought I might find you here.”
AN: Every time I update this fic I want you all to picture me on my knees saying “Are you not entertained?!” but in a crying begging way